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Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Written By: amodini - Sep• 01•11

Rules of Civility: A NovelTitle : Rules of Civility
Author : Amor Towles
Genre : Historical
Pages : 333 (Hardcover)
Publisher : Viking (Penguin Books)
Source : Publisher ARC
Rating : 3.5/5

Katey Kontent and Eve Ross are great friends. They room together and have come to New York city for work – Katey is a legal typist and Eve a marketing assistant. Each of the girls is very different – Katey comes from blue-collar stock and is looking to make her way up in New York City, while Eve comes from money- money she doesn’t want. Both, relatively impoverished, are living modestly :

So together we pinched. We ate every scrap at the boardinghouse breakfast and starved ourselves at lunch. We shared our clothes with the girls on the floor. We cut each other’s hair. On Friday nights, we let boys that we had no intention of kissing buy us drinks, and in exchange for dinner we kissed a few that we had no intention of kissing twice. . .And when we were late with the rent, she (Eve) did her part: She stood at Mrs. Martingale’s door and shed the unsalted tears of the Great Lakes.

It is the start of a new year – 1937. And Katey and Eve start the evening with “a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go”. Nursing their drinks in a cheap bar, they meet affluent looking banker Theodore Grey (or Tinker). The three become good friends. While both the girls are attracted to Tinker he seems to be drawn towards Katey. All that changes however with one tragic swoop of fate.

Rules of Civility tells an engrossing, fast-paced tale, punctuated with joy, hurt and pathos. Amor Towles has a way with words, framing his events beautifully and managing to lace even the most benign actions with emotional undercurrents. The details for this historical novel are just right, and the decadent New York of the 30’s and 40’s seems to come alive in the hands of this skilled author. So I will say that this book is an entertaining read, with just enough detail to elicit interest, but it doesn’t quite get beyond that.

This book is told in flash-back, a recounting of memories so to speak; one of the many reasons I thought it unfolded like a black-and-white film. Katey is the narrator, and tells us of events from her view-point. Still she remains an enigma, not letting us into her innermost thoughts. Her character seemed a little indeterminate; she’s the staid, stoic girl, hiding it all behind a shell. She’s feisty and seems very sure of herself – which denoted confidence and contentment. But then she is also a social climber, which seemed to deprecate her better qualities. I didn’t see how all these conflicts could exist in one person, and the book didn’t shed any light on this either, reducing her believability and strength as the main character.

Eve and Tinker, the other two protagonists also seemed clichéd; she, overtly dramatic and very, very type-A – the kinds, (and you know this because you are an ardent movie-goer) who harbors some deep insecurity or sadness within her, but masks it with forced gaiety. And he, Tinker Grey is the oft-drawn character of the borderline-weak man who knows not what he wants. Still, of the three, he was the character who seemed real and relatable.

There is also Anne Grandyn, and she is grand – the Grand Dame of New York City, behind the scenes, but powerful nevertheless. And then there is the jet-set, the young crème-de-la-crème of New Yorkian society who come from old money, into whose circles Katey and Eve are always drawn – Wallace, and Dicky, and Bitsy. All interesting characters these, they seem a tad removed because they appeared to be made-to-order, clichéd and glib, and spouted sassy rejoinders to boot. I couldn’t quite feel for them.

While the book has many tumultuous events, they seemed to lack emotional appeal because of their rather taciturn narrator – Katey. You think you know her, but you don’t. You know what she’s going for her but aren’t sure whether to applaud her for the path she’s taking.

I enjoyed the book, but can’t quite deem it superlative.

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